Leeds United 1969-72 – champions in all but name

LEEDS UNITED won the Football League championship twice under their patriarchal manager, Don Revie, in 1969 and 1974. But in between those title victories, Leeds could easily have been crowned champions three times between 1970 and 1972. They were arguably the best team during that period, perpetual runners-up and victims of their own consistency. If fixture congestion had not got the better of them or the club had invested more frequently in its first team squad, more trophies would surely have ended up at Elland Road.

Leeds had quite a thin squad, but the first choice eleven was outstanding. In 1969, their regular line-up included: Welsh international goalkeeper Gary Sprake; England caps Paul Reaney, Terry Cooper, Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter and Mick Jones; Scotland’s Billy Bremner, Peter Lorimer and Eddie Gray; and the Republic of Ireland midfielder Johnny Giles.

Leeds’ first championship was the culmination of five years’ progress since the club was promoted from the second division. They had won their first silverware in 1968 in the form of the Football League Cup and Inter Cities’ Fairs Cup, and their cautious professionalism – which was not always widely appreciated – meant they picked up more points (67) than scored goals (66).

Leeds United, 1968-69 League Champions: (back row, l-r) David Harvey, Mick Bates, Paul Madeley, Norman Hunter, Gary Sprake, Jack Charlton, Paul Reaney, Mike O’Grady, Rod Belfitt, Eddie Gray; (front row, l-r) Terry Hibbitt, Mick Jones, Terry Cooper, Johnny Giles, Billy Bremner, Peter Lorimer

This was, however, the age of defence-minded football, a British take on the Italian catenaccio that had stifled European competition. Revie was fanatical about detail and kept dossiers on rival teams that focused on negating the opposition rather than creating to win. Deep down, though, Revie wanted to build something lasting and memorable, hence he changed Leeds’ colours to all-white to ape the mighty Real Madrid. To some extent, he was successful, for plain Leeds became “super Leeds” and their playing style evolved to make the team one of the most exciting of the 1970s.

Revie wanted to build something lasting and memorable – and he was largely successful

Between 1969-70 and 1971-72, Leeds played some marvellous football. Too often, though, they were exhausted by punishing schedules that were a consequence of continued success on all fronts. There was criticism that the intensity of Revie’s regime also proved too much for mere mortals. Added to this the injuries to vital players at crucial times, such as broken legs for Paul Reaney and Terry Cooper, and it was not hard to feel fate was conspiring against Revie and his team at times.

Certainly there was often a sense of schadenfreude whenever Leeds slipped up, such as in 1970 when they were beaten by a resilient Chelsea in the FA Cup final after literally wiping the floor with their opponents, or that FA Cup giant-killing at the hands of Colchester United. And then there was the Arsenal comeback of 1971 and the failure at Molineux a year later. Every Leeds failure was amplified and enjoyed by their opponents.

Colchester United’s Ray Crawford (R) hooks the ball whilst on the ground and scores his team’s second goal during their FA cup game against Leeds United at Layer Road in 1970-71.

But there was also grudging respect for Revie’s team, especially in the three-year period when they should have dominated the game in England far more than they did.

In 1969-70, they strengthened their team with the signing of Allan Clarke, Leicester City’s talented striker. Clarke cost Revie £ 165,000 and would become an England player within months. Leeds were also interested in Peter Cormack of Hibernian, but a move never materialised. Revie promised that Leeds would have far more artistic licence in 1969-70 and so it proved. Clarke and Mick Jones linked up well from the start and the new man was soon among the goals.

Leeds went into 1970 in good form and opened the New Year with a resounding 5-2 win at Chelsea, who had been in excellent shape. They were also in the last eight of the European Cup and had yet to concede a goal in the competition. The FA Cup had seen them off to a good start, beating Swansea, non-league Sutton United, Mansfield and Swindon. At the end of February, they were top of the table, but Everton were two points behind and had a game in hand.

Leeds were closing in on an unprecedented treble of league, FA Cup and European Cup, but the games started to pile-up. The FA Cup semi-final tie with Manchester United was a trilogy that drained the energy of Revie’s men. A goal from Billy Bremner took Leeds to Wembley, but a two-game saga in Europe, against 1967 European Cup winners Celtic and a replayed FA Cup final with Chelsea broke the backbone of an already over-stretched team. Everton had won the league by nine points but most pundits expected Leeds to end the season with some recognition for their efforts. Celtic beat Leeds twice, 1-0 at Elland Road and 2-1 at Hampden Park. This semi-final tie was billed as “the Battle of Britain”, but Leeds had started to run out of steam. “The elastic has gone,” said one Fleet Street report, with no small amount of sympathy.

In the FA Cup, Leeds were beaten 2-1 by a determined Chelsea after a 2-2 draw at Wembley. Even the most myopic Chelsea fan had to admit that Leeds had been desperately unlucky but as the players sat on the Old Trafford turf, Revie, ever the father-figure, picked his lads up and told them to look ahead and start again. “We’ve done it before and we can do it now,” he said, while privately admitting he was “sick at heart”.

Leeds had been criticised 12 months earlier for their style, but in 1969-70, few could complain at the way they played. They scored 84 goals in the league, more than any other in division one, including champions Everton who had netted 72. It was hard to shake off a reputation, but in 1970-71, Leeds were once more the contenders and they played some excellent football in the process.

They won their first five games as if they meant to bury the shortcomings of the previous season. Once more, they were fighting on all fronts: the Inter Cities Fairs Cup, the league and the FA Cup. But into 1971, they suffered some setbacks. First of all, they were beaten at home by Liverpool in the league and then a week later, they lost 3-2 at Colchester in the FA Cup.

There was worse to come, although at the beginning of April, Leeds were six points ahead of Arsenal who had three games in hand. While the Gunners kept chipping away at that lead, Leeds drew at Newcastle and then on April 17 came the killer blow.

West Bromwich Albion won 2-1 at Elland Road thanks to an “offside” goal from Jeff Astle that sparked a pitch invasion. Revie was seen walking off the pitch looking to the heavens. “I have never felt so sick in my life in football, but we shall keep fighting to the last gasp,” he said.

Leeds’ defeat and an Arsenal win (1-0 against Newcastle) meant the two teams were level on 58 points, but the Londoners had a better goal average. Leeds had lost their advantage, although they regained some ground when they beat Arsenal at Elland Road on April 26, thanks to a disputed injury time goal from Jack Charlton.

But once more, fixture congestion meant Leeds were tiring and they played four games in eight days to end their domestic campaign and reach the Fairs’ Cup final. They ended on 64 points and Arsenal were a point behind on 63 with a game to go – the North London derby with Tottenham, which they won 1-0. Leeds were bridesmaids once more. This time, there was some consolation in the Fairs Cup, which Leeds won on away goals after drawing 3-3 on aggregate with Juventus. Over at Highbury, Arsenal were polishing the Football League Championship trophy and the FA Cup.

It says a lot for Don Revie and his motivational powers that Leeds were able to mount another title challenge after two near misses. In 1971-72, Leeds started to acquire some of the positive attributes from the continent, flowing football that could, on its day, pulverise teams. This was encapsulated in Leeds’ performance in March 1972 against Southampton, when they produced a near-perfect display to win 7-0.

Yet Leeds started the season with a severe handicap. The crowd trouble at Elland Road in that West Bromwich Albion game meant they had to play their first four home games on neutral territory, at Huddersfield, Sheffield Wednesday and Hull.

Leeds United captain Billy Bremner (r) and manager Don Revie (l) celebrate with the FA Cup after their 1-0 win over Arsenal in 1972.

They took their time to hit top form, but come January, they were closing in on the two Manchester clubs at the summit. They overtook United and City at the end of the month but it was a tight race and the lead kept changing hands with Derby, Manchester City, Liverpool and Leeds all in with a shout.

Leeds won through to the FA Cup final where they would meet Arsenal. In effect, a win and a draw would secure the “double” – at Wembley against their old rivals and then at Molineux, home of Wolves two days later. The first part of that equation was completed when Allan Clarke’s header clinched the FA Cup. But then, on the following Monday, despite being 3-1 favourites in the eyes of the bookmakers, Leeds lost to Wolves 2-1.

While people had, in the past, revelled in Leeds’ defeats, this time it was different. “One of the bravest failures of all time,” said one newspaper. Jack Charlton, as honest as ever, just commented, “I’m as sick as a pig”.

Some questioned if this taxing three-year period had burned Leeds out, that we had in fact seen the best of this team. But there was still gas in the tank, although in 1972-73 they dropped to third and were beaten in two finals. Then came the second title, which proved to be Revie’s swansong, and a European Cup final in 1975.

Could Leeds have won more? The answer,  unequivocally is yes. Their playing resources were not deep enough, as evidenced when regulars were missing and they called on untried youngsters who had sat watching the first team year-in, year-out. When you’re trying to win everything, you need reinforcements. Was their approach a contributory factor to repeated shortfalls? Again, the answer has to be yes. Revie’s early years made Leeds unpopular with neutrals and this meant opponents raised their game and enjoyed beating them. In some ways, Leeds played 42 cup finals in their league programme.

Nevertheless, Leeds still won two titles, one FA Cup, two European trophies and a Football League Cup in a decade. That’s a pretty good return.



Photos: PA

One thought on “Leeds United 1969-72 – champions in all but name

  1. Long thought that if they had invested in Shilton instead of persevering with the worst player in the side in Sprake, they would have been the club of a generation.

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